Elena Barham, a 19-year-old University of Sheffield student from Barnsley, has won the BBC Young Writers’ Award 2022 with Cambridge University (YWA) for ‘Little Acorns’, a 1940s-set story which explores gender, familial relationships, loss and abuse. The news was announced live on BBC Radio 4 Front Row this evening (Tuesday 4 October) during a ceremony held at BBC Broadcasting House.
Talking about her story, Elena Barham says:
“I wrote ‘Little Acorns’ when I was sixteen, two years before submitting to the competition. Whilst it does sound cliched, the idea really did arrive to me almost in its entirety. The closing imagery of a child in the sea wearing their father’s boyhood clothes appeared very vividly to me and at once I knew my plot and characters. It was one of the quickest first drafts I’ve written as well as one of my most enjoyable writing experiences. ‘Little Acorns’ was originally the start of a novel but as I wanted to submit to this competition it faced brutal edits to trim it to 999 words. I’ve followed the Award for years and have always been impressed by the shortlisted and winning stories, so I feel very honoured!”
A relation of William Shakespeare, Elena has already received multiple accolades for her work, including winner of the Ilkley Literature Festival Young People’s Poetry Prize 2021, winner of the Barnsley Writers’ competition – the first adult’s writing competition she entered; runner-up in the Lewis Carroll Society’s writing competition and a shortlisting for Goldsmiths’ Young Writer 2021. This autumn Elena has started an English Literature degree at the University of Sheffield after taking a gap year to develop her creative writing.
“‘Little Acorns’ is an incredibly accomplished piece of writing – it’s full of vivid characters, subtlety and intrigue, and it squeezes so much story into so few words. Choosing just one story from this year’s amazing shortlist was such a difficult task, but Elena’s talent for creating narrative that stays with you long after you’ve finished reading makes her a hugely worthy winner. We can’t wait to see what she writes next.” Katie Thistleton, BBC Radio 1 presenter and Chair of Judges for BBC YWA 2022
Set in the 1940s, ‘Little Acorns’ tells the story of an evacuee who goes to live with her Gran by the sea. On discovering some of her late father’s old clothes, she decides to disguise her gender by dressing up. Influenced by Elena’s early years living by the sea on the same road as Virginia Woolf, the story takes a dark turn when she realizes her friend’s perfect father, is not all he seems. The judges were impressed by this ‘amazing’ story, with multiple elements explored with such skill.
‘Little Acorns’ is available to listen to on BBC Sounds and the BBC Radio 1 website, read by Sophie McShera of Downton Abbey fame. Elena will be interviewed about her win on Radio 1’s Life Hacks on Sunday 9th October.
Elena beat stiff competition from fellow teenagers Nabiha Ali, 16, from Lancashire for ‘Dandelions’; Emily Betts, 17, from Northamptonshire for ‘Bite’; Eshana Dasanjh, 18, from Leeds for ‘Peach’ and Dora Fidler, 17, from Barnet for ‘The Poltergeist’.
Now in its eighth year, The BBC Young Writers’ Award with Cambridge University 2021 is open to all writers between the ages of 14 –18 years at the time of entry and was created to discover and inspire the next generation of writers. A cross-network collaboration between BBC Radio 4 and Radio 1, it has quickly built a reputation for discovering the literary stars of the future; Lottie Mills was first shortlisted in 2018, age 16 and went on to win the Award in 2020. Earlier this year, the publisher, Oneworld acquired the rights for her debut short story collection, Monstrum, to be published as a super-lead hardback in early 2024. Last year’s winner Tabitha Rubens – also shortlisted in 2018 – won the 2020 HG Wells International Short Story Competition.
This year’s judging panel was chaired by Radio 1 presenter Katie Thistleton. She was joined by author and co-founder of Black Girls’ Book Club, Melissa Cummings-Quarry; poet Nikita Gill; YouTuber and digital creator, Joel Rochester; and Irish novelist and podcaster Caroline O’Donoghue.
“‘Little Acorns’ is a haunting story full of startling descriptions told by a compelling narrator. The story revolves around secrets and unspoken tensions and is the type of narrative that, once finished, you immediately want to re-read. Elena Barham is certainly a writer to watch.” Dr Midge Gillies, Academic Director, Creative Writing, University of Cambridge, Institute of Continuing Education
All five stories can be read and listened to online at: www.bbc.co.uk/ywa